Saturday, October 30, 2010

Constructing a residence fit for the President of the University of Limerick

Last February a statement on behalf of the President of the University of Limerick to the Public Accounts Committee indicated that €2,317,000 was provided by The Atlantic Philanthropies towards the complete cost of constructing an official home for the President on the campus, of which €347,000 was for associated infrastructure.

The Atlantic Philanthropies have been extraordinarily generous to the University of Limerick and provided grants of €29.65 million towards 15 different projects in the past decade. These included the funding of €3.61 million for a faculty and staff common room in 2001 and €1,075 million for core support for the University of Limerick Foundation in 2007. But the latest list of grant-aided projects does not mention the Presidents House, despite other grants being paid to the University in 2009.

Perhaps, Chuck Feeney, the founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies made the funds available through some other means. However, the statement to the Public Accounts Committee emphasised that the Higher Education Authority had been very supportive of campus development and had been regularly briefed 'in the context of seeking State funds for campus development through various submissions and reports'. But it did not explicitly state the Higher Education Authority or the Department of Education & Skills were aware of the initiative to build the President's House before this matter was discussed at the Public Accounts Committee. Would it not have been astute of the University to keep these bodies abreast of both thinking and developments as these are planned and take place rather than run to very real risk of being subsequently left out in the bitter cold by them at another time?

The generosity of Mr Feeney was a critical catalyst in launching the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions throughout Ireland. He approached then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and then Minister for Education Micheál Martin in 1998 offering to put up £75 million for research if the Government would match it. Third level research has subsequently benefited from funding of €1.22 billion provided by exchequer and matching private funds, of which €749.9 million was spent on research buildings and €429.4 million was spent on research programmes.

This raises the question that if Mr Feeney provided the funds to build a house for the President of University of Limerick why a matching contribution was not solicited from the State or some other partner. The value and yield from the investments that provide the funds donated by The Atlantic Philanthropies have been hit by the recession and administrative expenses as a percentage of donor expense has increased from 10% to 13% between 2008 and 2009. How could it have made sense for The Atlantic Philanthropies to bear the bear the total burden and the total risk of this project against this background, especially when their main mission is to redress social injustice and disadvantage? Why would no credit be claimed by the donor in its publicity?

The cost of constructing this residence at €4,378 per metre 2
in 2009-2010 was very high given
the depressed state of the construction sector and the economy – did moral hazard creep in and inflate the cost when the funding was provided without quibble by a third party? Is this residence owned by the source of the funds, by the University or by the State? While no State funding was apparently sought for its construction who picks up the tab for upkeep and maintenance, given that it is intended to accommodate distinguished visitors to the University of Limerick?

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